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Strong Social, Emotional Skills Impact Test Scores

January 22, 2010
By Connie Myer

"This isn't just touchy-feely stuff," says Sheldon Berman, Jefferson County (Ky.) superintendent of schools. "This isn't about being nice. It's serious work to create a sense of community and resolve conflicts." It also apparently improves student achievement.

Berman is referring to social and emotional learning programs. Students' achievement test scores went up an average of 11 percentile points in schools with social and emotional learning programs, according to researchers who conducted 180 school-based studies nationwide. Berman thought it was worth a try.

An alarming 94 percent of the students in Berman's school district come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches. "Many of these kids come from homes and neighborhoods distressed by poverty, violence and drugs. When they arrive at school, some may be hungry, angry, scared or sleep deprived," Berman explains.

After studying some highly effective social and emotional learning models throughout the country, Berman's team built CARE for Kids. CARE first stood for "Community, Autonomy, Relationships and Empowerment" but has since been re-termed "Creating a Respectful Environment."

There are five essential strategies in the CARE for Kids program.

1. Building community and setting a supportive tone through morning meetings;

2. Setting and reinforcing expectations-with kids' input;

3. Directly teaching social and emotional skills;

4. Using precise, positive teacher language, and

5. Practicing developmental discipline.

It all starts with something as simple as a morning meeting. A team of educators greets each child by name every morning. Their goal is to ensure that every child starts the day with a welcome from a caring adult who knows her name and something personal about her. They then make their way to classrooms for a 20-minute morning meeting. At many high schools, it is done in advisory periods or homerooms.

During this time, students and teachers join in discussions, activities, games and role-playing that address empathy, collaboration and personal responsibility. The meeting establishes the class as a community and teaches important social skills. Using carefully chosen strategies, teachers and other adults at school reinforce these lessons throughout the rest of the day. The focus is always on student achievement, but this is accomplished by empowering kids with strategies on how to cope, how to behave, how to resolve conflict, and how to set priorities for their lives. Students are coached to solve their own problems.

The results have been astounding. Suspensions and discipline referrals fell 50 percent in the first year of the program and dropped in half again the following year. Room 209, once used for detentions, is now used for small-group instruction. The school's tardies and early dismissals have declined by 13 percent, and the percentage of students scoring in the two highest levels on the Kentucky Core Content Test rose significantly.

Mary Utne O'Brien, of the Chicago-based, nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning praised Berman and his team, proclaiming that it matches up to the best SEL practices from around the country.

"Children who are taught social and emotional skills can wield those skills throughout their education," says O'Brien.

Some critics call this an overly sentimental approach. There is a school of thought that says the school's focus should be only on academics, and that academic achievement helps in all other areas of students' lives. There may be some truth to that, but Berman says there is an immediate academic payoff when you empower students emotionally.

Principal Bill Perkins agrees.

"Anybody who is involved in school reform knows that if you don't get the culture right, you're not going to get the test scores right," he says. School accountability and high-stakes testing are part of this country's landscape whether we like it or not. Educators are forced to be concerned about their students' academic performance. The country's landscape, however, reveals huge numbers of troubled children.

When children's basic needs are not met, when they do not feel physically and emotionally safe, when they do not feel accepted, or when they are carrying with them the burdens of an adult, don't count on their being at peak academic learning capacity. I agree with Berman. It's worth a try.

Connie Myer, Ed.D., is director of the professional education department of Wheeling Jesuit University. She can be reached at

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